This TDS Strategy Memo by Andrew Levison, author of two books and numerous articles about working-class Americans, was written in response to the Demos-TDS online forum on Restoring Trust in Government.
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In a 2007 article in The American Prospect, pollster Stan Greenberg provided a particularly cogent description of the profound political problem that the decline in trust of government poses for the Democratic coalition:
There is a new reality that Democrats must deal with if they are to be successful going forward. In their breathtaking incompetence and comprehensive failure in government, Republicans have undermined Americans’ confidence in the ability of government to play a role in solving America’s problems. Democrats will not make sustainable gains unless they are able to restore the public’s confidence in its capacity to act through government.
…”the scale of damage done to people’s belief in government is enormous… 62% in a Pew study said they believe that whenever something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. By 57% to 29% Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life rather than helping people. 85% say that if the government had more money it would waste it rather than spend it well.
Although people may favor government action on critical issues like health care, education and energy their lack of trust in governments capacity to spend money properly means that their first priority is to cut wasteful spending and make government more accountable. People are desperate to see accountability from Washington, not just in the spending of tax dollars with no discernible results but also in politicians’ behavior… To have any chance of getting heard on their agenda, Democrats need to stand up and take on the government–not its size or scope, but its failure to be accountable–and deliver the results that people expect for the taxes they pay.
A more recent strategy memo by Greenberg’s Democracy Corps focuses on the overwhelming distrust and contempt with which Congress in particular is viewed:
Voters are disgusted with ‘business as usual’ in Washington. There is a deep and pervasive belief, particularly among independents, that special interests are running things and Members of Congress listen more to those that fund their campaigns than the voters that they are supposed to be representing. Three quarters believe that special interests hold too much influence over Washington today while fewer than a quarter believe that ordinary citizens can still influence what happens in politics. Similarly, nearly 80 percent say that Members of Congress are trolled by the groups that help fund their political campaigns while fewer than a fifth believe that Members listen more to the voters.
For Democrats the fundamental “take-away” from Greenberg’s analysis is simple. Until this profound distrust is overcome Democrats will be unable to pass any major new social legislation or political reform. Democrats have no alternative. They must reduce the enormous cynicism Americans now feel about government.
In political terms the most important demographic group whose opinions of government Democrats must seek to change is the white working class–people who have less than a college degree and are generally employed in “working class” rather than “middle class” jobs. Their support for Democrats plummeted by 12 percent between 2008 and 2010 in large part because of this issue. Without regaining a substantial part of this lost support in 2012, a Democratic victory will be close to impossible.
What Democrats need is a coherent strategy for addressing the complex mixture of attitudes that lies behind hostility and distrust of government–a strategy that not only addresses the problem in a meaningful way but which can also be presented in a consistent and convincing communications campaign.